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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
August 27

HEADLINE: Israel, Hizbullah say prisoner swap possible 'within months'


The mediation efforts to return Israelis kidnapped by Hizbullah brightened Tuesday, with top Israeli and Hizbullah officials expressing optimism that a prisoner swap might be concluded "within months."

The breakthrough in the German-mediated negotiations occurred Monday, when Israel released into Hizbullah custody the bodies of two gunmen killed in attacks against the IDF in southern Lebanon.

In exchange for the bodies, Hizbullah permitted German mediator Ernest Uhrlau access to Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, kidnapped in Switzerland in October 2000.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in Japan that "there is a glimmer of hope that these measures might lead to some result."

Other news agencies quoted Israeli officials saying that the three-year captivity might end "within months," or "very, very soon."

Israeli officials neither confirmed nor denied the claims, but said that Israel has exercised extreme caution in divulging details of the negotiations, fearing that any slip could scuttle painstaking diplomatic efforts.

At the raucous funeral ceremony for Amar Hammoud and Ghassan Za'atar in southern Lebanon, Hizbullah local leader Sheikh Nabil Kaouk said that he believed he saw "progress" in the negotiations.

Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah added that he hopes negotiations "will continue and achieve the requested results."

Proffering a rosier view, Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, reported that "negotiations are nearly completed, or else Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who is known for his caution in dealing with this subject, would not have expressed such optimism."

The current round of negotiations is apparently based on the rumored release of two top Hizbullah officials, Mustafa Dirani, captured in 1994, and Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, captured in 1989.

The two were kidnapped from southern Lebanon in special forces raids in the hopes that the two could one day be exchanged for information regarding the fate of Israeli navigator Ron Arad.

The recent developments are the closest Israel has come to obtaining the release of prisoners since previous German-mediated efforts fell flat in the mid-to-late 1990s.

The Arad family slammed the rumored exchange of Dirani and Obeid for Elhanan Tannenbaum. The navigator's brother, Chen Arad, argued that it would only be fitting to exchange the Hizbullah man for Arad, downed in a mission over Lebanon in 1986.

Israel has a priority to gain the release of soldiers it sent to fight the enemy rather than other citizens, he told Channel 1.

While some believe Arad to have died during the 17 years of his captivity, the IDF has not officially declared him "fallen in action."

The Defense Ministry would neither confirm nor deny that it weighed trading Dirani and Obeid for Tannenbaum. "Everything that is said about this subject minimizes the chances that a deal might eventually be worked out," was its only reply.

Mediator Uhrlau, the former chief of Hamburg Intelligence, had said that Tannenbaum was in "satisfactory condition."

According to Beirut-based A-Sapir, Uhrlau has convinced the two sides to relent on several sticking points.

Apparently Israel has waived its steadfast demand that the release of Obeid and Dirani would hinge on information regarding Ron Arad.

The swap is focusing primarily on Tannenbaum primarily because he is the only prisoner thought with some certainty to be alive. The three IDF soldiers kidnapped in a cross-border Hizbullah raid in October 2000 St.-Sgts. Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham, and Omar Sawayid were declared dead by the IDF last year, and their places of burial unknown.

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